Photo Credit Jan Garrison
Resiliency in tough times
April 30, 2020

Every Wednesday at 7 a.m., Culver Academies Director of International Student Achievement, Catherine Tulungen, convenes a special Zoom meeting for the Asia/Pacific students with more than a hundred people in attendance.

There are 84 students in the region, Tulungen said.  That includes China, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and Australia.  Joining the students are CMA and CGA counselors, CGA dorm moms, and various members of the school administration and instructors.

Assisting during the meeting are assistant directors Kevin Bowman and Mary Jessica Lawrence. Tulungen’s husband Johnnes, a member of the Leadership Education Department, helps with the technical details of the meeting.

The mandatory session, which begins at 7 p.m. in Beijing, provides an opportunity for students to hear updates on the online learning program and the latest information about standardized testing, to ask questions regarding student visas, and to even play some games within the group.

“By far, the greatest part of this new online experience has been the student involvement,” Tulungen said. “While there are students who are struggling with having lost their spring term, others have really stepped up to be leaders and coordinators.”

The biggest challenge has been the technology in the region.  Weak and unstable internet, problems with computer cameras and microphones, and blocked websites in China are hurdles the group has had to face, and a student recently stepped forward to serve as the technology coordinator to help with those issues, she said.

And, when spring term began on April 1, several of the students were still under a 14-day quarantine order, she explained. In general, though, the group has adjusted “remarkably well” to the new online instruction.

“The students want to make Culver online a success,” she added, “so they are exploring the technology and brainstorming creative ideas.”

Chief International Officer Tony Giraldi isn’t surprised at the students’ desire to make the online experience work. What he marvels at is their grit. “We teach resiliency,” he said, but the level at which the students keep rising to the occasion is amazing to witness. “They just say ‘OK,’ buckle up and go with the flow.”

“They’ve really had a tough time,” he said. Many of them had to endure long flights home, go into a mandatory quarantine at a government-operated hotel, and then go into isolation with their families. In one instance, a student was at home by himself because his parents were under quarantine in South Korea. “It really is gratifying to see how our kids have endured.”

Those stories have come out when the students have offered personal reflections during the Wednesday meetings. Recently they were joined by the Regimental Commander, Joe Chandler (Indianapolis), and Senior Prefect, Dana Nzerem (Abuja, Nigeria), who offered their personal reflections. Tulungen said their talk was an emotional one.

Dana Nzerem and Joe Chandler talk with the Asian/Pacific students

The Wednesday meetings are just one part of what Tulungen has been doing on behalf of students on the other side of the world. Her weekdays officially begin with a 7-to-9 a.m. open session for students with any issues over class materials, internet connectivity matters, or computer concerns.

With the time difference, the time slot was selected because it wasn’t too late for the students and not too early for the adults. While they are expected to attend this once-a-week session, the students are not required to sign in to the regular Zoom classes since they fall in the middle of the night.  However, each class is recorded so that students can watch them during the day.

Interestingly, several students have stayed up into the early morning hours to attend the live class sessions. Giraldi knows it is because they miss their classmates and instructors. The Culver bond is as strong as it is unique, he said. That is why they are so eager to meet over Zoom and stay up late to join the live sessions. It’s a chance to reconnect.

And it isn’t just the students who miss those connections, Giraldi explained.  Almost every day he hears from parents around the world who are missing their Culver connections.

“Culver is really a big family,” he said. “They are missing those people in their lives.”

The Wednesday sessions offer more than just a chance to connect. They have covered a wide swath of information. Topics have included how the Advanced Placement, SAT, and ACT tests will be handled this spring and summer; how to improve personal internet connections if needed; turning in senior service portfolios or starting service portfolios for juniors; handling leadership positions for next year; and updates on F1 visas for returning students and visa requirements for first classmen and seniors heading to college in the fall.

Students are also being reminded to “advocate for yourself” and ask Tulungen for assistance as needed. Jessica Harding, one of the sponsors for the Diversity Council, reminded the students that Culver’s goal is to make sure each student has “every opportunity to do their best” despite the time difference.

“Working with the students over the past six weeks has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my time at Culver,” Tulungen said. “It is very rewarding to help students to organize their schedules in all the different time zones and help them learn how to communicate with faculty.”

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